Abby Ellin, 37, is a freelance writer and author of Teenage Waistland: A Former Fat Kid Weighs in on Living Large, Losing Weight, and How Parents Can (and Can't) Help. A regular contributor to the New York Times, Abby’s work has also appeared in Time, The Village Voice, Glamour, as well as many other publications. Abby hails from Brookline, MA, but is now a passionate and dedicated New Yorker.
Why did you write Teenage Waistland?
I am trying to give voice to obese kids. All these people keep talking about what fat kids need to do, how they should be eating this and parents should be doing that. No one is really talking to them - no one is talking to the parents of kids and no one is talking to the kids themselves. I wanted people to hear what the kids and the parents have to say and what they think about all this and what some of their real life struggles are. I think that losing weight is much more than putting the chopped veggies in the fridge and taking them out when you’re hungry.
Who is your audience?
The book is for parents of obese kids. It’s hopefully also for the kids themselves, because I talk a lot about my own experiences as a fat kid. I was never obese at all but I had all sorts of body issues and body image issues. My grandma wouldn’t let me come visit because I was too fat, so I definitely feel like I relate to them, the kids.
I want parents to read it because I want them to understand what it’s like for their kids, and I want kids to read it because I want them to know they aren’t alone.
What are you doing to get kids to read the book?
One of the things I have to do is get the book into schools somehow. I’ve been on TV and I’ve talked at Weight Loss camps but I need to get the book to kids; that’s a big issue. So if you have any thoughts…
Since you brought up camp, let’s talk about that for a moment. You attended fat camp, but we get the impression from the book that it was maybe the worst thing for you.
It was and it wasn’t. There was one camp especially that I thought was awful, the one I worked at as a counselor, Camp Kingsmont. They had a back room of food and I thought that was just a disaster. Camp bred a total focus and obsession with food that was really unhealthy.
The flip side is, it was really nice to be in an environment where you could be with people who were like you and grappling with the same issues. People who were in the same oversized boat, as I like to say. The other thing is it’s two months when you’re not gaining weight. For a fat kid or a seriously obese kid, that’s a big deal.
Can you elaborate on what happens the rest of the year when kids aren’t at camp.
Chaos. So many parents don’t know that what they have to do is change the household. If one kid has a weight problem, then you’ve got to change the household to accommodate that one. I really believe that. You can’t have one cabinet of junk food for young Tommy and then his sister who has the weight problem has to eat all this healthy stuff.
And parents expect that the kid is going to lose weight and that’ll be that. They go away, they lose their 20 pounds or 30 pounds whatever they lose and they’re never gonna have a weight problem again. That’s not true. It’s one thing to lose weight; it’s a totally different thing to maintain it.
What else should a parent be thinking about when it comes to kids and food issues?
They have to look at themselves and their own issues, because chances are they are obsessed with food.
I interviewed one mother who eats Doritos and hides them from her kid and she’s afraid her kid is going to smell her Dorito breath. She’s a hypocrite and kids pick up on that. The other parents who look in the mirror and say “God, I’m so fat,” when they have maybe gained 2 pounds. That kind of stuff, their kids pick up on that. So, that’s really bad.
I am a big advocate of making the house a safe haven. The whole world is so shitty; it’s so awful and cruel. And if the house isn’t a safe haven, it’s really unfortunate. I didn’t like to eat in front of my family and I still don’t like to eat in front of my family.
I think unconditional love is the best thing, honestly I do. If there is nothing medically wrong, then love your kid no matter how much she weighs.
In your book you bring up that parents of fat kids have been thought of as unfit and have lost their children, yet, there have been no cases where kids with bulimia or anorexia have been taken away from their parents.
Yeah, how come nobody takes them away? You have these kids who are being taken away from their parents because they are too fat, but it doesn’t happen when the kid is anorexic. Why does it only happen when the kid is fat? Anorexia is just as much of a health risk.
There are some cases of parents underfeeding children, like those kids in New Jersey that were eating wallboard because they were so hungry. The kids were taken away from their parents, but that’s a different story than a kid becoming anorexic. Then you have a story like Anamarie Regino who was taken away from her parents. She was 3 years old and weighed 120 pounds and they thought her parents were trying to sabotage her, which wasn’t the case.
Given that it is a very personal subject and that you revisit issues you had with food growing up, what was the writing process like?
My friend I were actually talking about it last night and she’s like, “You know, it was really hard for me to watch you go through it, because you were eating like a fat kid would.” We were in Brazil together and she was like, “You bought an entire thing of cookies and ate it on the bus. I never saw you do that, because you don’t usually eat that way in front of me.” And I was like, “I know, I’m totally going back and trying to get in that mindset of being this kid again.” It was actually really interesting and it was painful in a lot of ways. There was a part of me that thought, oh my god, I can’t believe I’m still thinking about this. Why am I still writing about this? Haven’t I moved on? I felt a little bit pathetic.
The truth is, a lot of people think about this, a lot of people think about food, a lot of people think about weight. Everybody’s talking about obesity. As I always joke, obesity is the new black. But I’m getting really tired about talking about weight and food.
How long have you been thinking about doing this book?
About 20 years. I wanted to write this book since I was 16 years old, that’s the truth. The first time I went to fat camp I thought this is something that needs to be written about. I tried to sell the book about 8-9 years ago. I got an agent and he sent it around to people and they all said, “She’s a great writer, but we’re not interested in the topic.” Well, ha. They were wrong.
So, how did you finally connect?
Actually, the truth is my editor’s daughter is on the cover of the book, so she’s obviously interested in this stuff just because she has a daughter who’s 14 years old and weighs about 270 pounds.
But it took a while to find interest. After a certain amount of rejections I thought, oh we’re not going to find anybody. It seemed like a topic that people still didn’t want to quite address. Or, they do want to address it, but in a “how to” way. Everybody wants the five easy steps, but to really look at it intellectually and as a bigger issue than what it seems, people didn’t want to do that.
What kind of feedback have you been getting?
People are really interested in my story; they find it really compelling. And they find the stories of the kids heartbreaking. They are also saying that they find it nice to have somebody write about it with compassion; to write about being overweight, telling a story and not making the fat people out like they are freaks or failures or that they have moral failings because they are fat.
Also it’s not patronizing and not trying to fix [the problem] with one easy answer. I think people have been frustrated that there’s not an answer. Unfortunately, I am a terrible tragic realist and there’s not an answer and I’m not going to make one up. I should. If I was smarter I probably would, then I’d be Dr. Phil. But there’s not an answer. You have to figure out what works for you. It’s the same with smoking or with drinking.
There is this website, Big Fat Blog, that is all about “fat acceptance.” They have a post about you where they’ve called you mean and a "thin supremacist." Have you read this?
No, I didn’t see that. Really?
Yes. Personally I don’t get it, because I think you present their side in the book and explain why it’s not right for you.
Yeah, I don’t think they understand what I’m saying and they probably haven’t read the book. I say that if you have the power and if you have the strength to withstand what a horrible culture we live in and how cruel people are to people that are fat, than I commend you.
I am really hard on myself and I’m a big rebel and if I had the power to feel good about myself being heavy, than I would do it. I just don’t. I’m just not strong enough. I’m envious of people who are. I really am.
Ok, let’s switch gears a little. What do you think of a show like Celebrity Fit Club?
I just wrote about them in the New York Times a few days ago. It’s interesting. Of course obesity is the last successful form of discrimination and people love to watch fat people make fools of themselves. I think that it’s no a surprise that shows like that are so popular. They are extensions of Oprah’s Weight Loss Club or Dr. Phil’s Weight Loss Club. They’re not any different really; it’s just that Celebrity Fit Club has B & C list celebrities doing it.
I want to know what happens to all those people once they leave the show. I think most of them are going to gain the weight back. There was only one person, and I wrote about her in my article, who was actually doing it to lose weight, and that was Wendy Kaufman, the Snapple Lady. She has really been fat her whole life; the other people I thought were trying to regenerate their careers.
I do wonder how come they don’t have anorexic fit clubs. Like we get Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Richie and they compete. I’d love that.
What do you think of Dove's real beauty campaign?
I think it’s terrific. Apparently it’s also going on in the UK and the women are even heavier, which I thought was really interesting.
Since you mention the UK/Europe, I wanted to ask you about the New York Times best seller, French Women Don't Get Fat. Have you read it?
Yeah, I read it and I thought it was completely ridiculous because it’s just saying cut down on what you’re eating and exercise portion control. In fact, what Publisher’s Weekly said about my book is that it’s not the same thing as reading a French woman’s recipe for leek soup. It’s not. It’s a bestseller because it’s catchy and it provides some sort of solution. But so did Dr. Atkins and they’re bankrupt now.
What do you think of the diets that are out there?
I think Atkins is ludicrous. I think of all of them Weight Watchers makes the most sense, I mean eating a balanced diet and working out.
Are you on a diet now?
No, my weight is normal. I work out and I try not to eat a lot.
And, I don’t use the word dieting. It’s a terrible word. It implies something you go on and off. It’s not that easy. This is something that you have to do for life.